In a previous life I worked at a recording studio. We had a standing rule not to take jobs from filmmakers. When we had in the past, it never worked out. Our clients were advertising agencies — meaning producers and the production houses that were hired by the agencies. Our tasks would be to record a voice over, edit the pieces, lay in some music, and do a final mix. There were a lot of different people involved and each had their own schedule and deadlines that they were working with.
Here’s a quick picture of a common scheduling conflict.
We get a call from a producer. He has a project that will consist of a TV spot and a radio spot. Talent hasn’t been booked, script hasn’t been approved. We put a few days on hold for the project on the calendar. It’s a few weeks away since there’s no rush. We get a call the next day – script has been approved and talent is only available one day next week. There is a deadline now and we’re already behind schedule. Okay. We check the schedule.
Uh oh, we’re booked the one day they want. After a few more calls the talent’s time opens up, but now the client won’t be available to approve the voice over. We’ll have to email them a rough cut and wait to hear back about changes. The day of the record arrives and picture isn’t locked. There has been no approval of the graphics. We need to push back but the deadline hasn’t changed. We’re booked the next day so we wait while the editor’s rush and instead of starting at noon we don’t get going until 6PM. Oh, and once the TV spot is final the radio spot needs to be cut down from a sixty second spot to a thirty second spot.
It’s difficult to manage the schedules of a team of professionals all working on various projects at the same time, but since we’re talking about professionals it’s not really an issue. You get it done. You compromise, they compromise.
This is not how it went for us when we worked with independent filmmakers. First, they have no money. They want a favor. They’ve poured all of their money into this passion project and now they cut a trailer that’s going to be shown at a local theater. Please help. They only have $300 for the audio and we cave and give in and say that we’ll give you two hours of solid work to mix the trailer, a job that we would charge $800 for. They think they should only have to pay $100 because what we have to do is so easy, but they agree to come in anyway.
They come in and it starts friendly. They don’t understand the concept of audio levels and we’ll hear all of their complaints about how they’re being ripped off, but finally they agree to trust us and let us do our work. Cool. They leave three hours later with their finished product. That evening emails start coming in. The next morning the director calls, frantic. The mix isn’t loud enough. Something’s wrong. He’s politely upset. He says he’s coming down now so we can fix it. Sorry. The engineer is in session. He needs to come in, he repeats, can he come down in an hour? Sorry. Booked. We’ll call him later in the afternoon and find a way to make it work.
A barrage of emails to the engineer in session all saying the same thing, how could you screw up something so easy? This is wrong. More phone calls. From polite to aggressive. He needs to come in and get his mix fixed, it’s going to show in a few days and he needs time check it out again. Oh, and they decided on a different music track so we have to change that.
He still has no money but can we do it right now anyway? He tells us we have to since we promised we’d get it done. We do. He comes in after our regular hours and nothing changes because the mix is fine. It’s great. We make a few tweaks so he sees us do something, but really nothing changed. Fine. He leaves appeased.
Months later he calls back (which they usually do) with another similar project, we tell him to call a film student or an amateur engineer to help out. Problem is, he (they) demands professional work paid for with goodwill and pocket change and on their schedule, no matter what.
The difference between the indie filmmaker and the agency producer is their level of professionalism. There are difficult professionals, but they work within the unwritten rules of the industry. If they ask for a favor, in return we’d get a big job down the road that pays well. If they need us after hours or weekends they pay for it.
Recently at the office I was on the phone helping a woman schedule a meeting with my boss. Usually we’re hired by lawyers and we deal with them and their staff. Very similar to the recording studio > production house > ad agency dynamic. Court dates and depositions arranged around ever evolving calendars.
This woman had no lawyer. She was like the indie filmmaker, making demands without understanding the nature of how business works. She needed to see my boss the next day at 1PM. No other time would work. He was booked elsewhere and wouldn’t be available until the next week. She said she needed to see him the next day at 1PM. She repeats her request, I repeat my reply. I can’t make him available. She explains her position. I explain mine.
She pleads and tells me her life story and how seeing my boss the next day at 1PM is vital.There’s someone else who can see her. She says no, it has to be with my boss and it can only be at 1PM the next day. She tells me that, with a hint of a whimper in her voice, she needs to see him the next day at 1PM.
This conversation goes on in circles for at least thirty minutes. She finally agrees to see someone else at 1PM the next day.
What is a customer supposed to bring to the table? They have wants and demands and in exchange for providing a service they give money. You often hear the phrase, ‘The customer is always right,’ but what if they’re not? What if you don’t want, or need, their business as much as they need you? What does the customer need to bring to the relationship for both sides to get what they want?
These difficult clients end up getting what they want, but at the cost of not being welcomed back. They call and plead and generally misunderstand the process of whatever the service you provide is.
A restaurant full of hungry people and the table with the loudest complaints will end up eating first. ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease.’ Meaning, they’re rewarded for being bothersome while other, more professional, clients wait their turn.
What I don’t understand is the thought process of ‘the squeaky wheel.’ We all work and at some point everyone ends up on the other side of the bar or the phone call. You can’t argue with the results though. they get what they what. It’s not fair but not everything is, so I’m not surprised despicable behavior gets rewarded.
And of course, this does not mean that filmmakers make bad clients, or anyone else for that matter. When dealing with a professional; a lawyer, engineer, waiter, or bartender (yup, restaurant staff are professionals! Tip ’em well!), you can’t assume you know their job better than they do. Treat them as you would want to be treated. If you’re confused about part of the process, just ask for an explanation.
Be nice. That never hurts.
Is this complaining? Am I whining about people that complain? Hope not, but maybe.
INTERRUPTING SEMI-TANGENTAL ASIDE: It’s always the staff that have to deal with the issues anyway. The doctor doesn’t have to deal with a waiting room full of ill and injured patients, all growing anxious and angered as the minutes pass their appointment time. One job that I would love and hate to have is that of a Disneyland cast member. Imagine having to tell a family that’s visiting from Michigan why Space Mountain is closed. That’s rough business.
Whatever it is you do that earns you a living is a service that your customers cannot do and that’s why they hire you. For help. When you accept a job you also accept the duty to help the customer get whatever it is they need, but you’re not required to like them as people.
What needs to be remembered by anyone in the customer role is that just because you pay someone for a service doesn’t mean your also bought their respect, but I have a feeling that folks that like to complain and make demands don’t put much value in things like respect and kindness. Just a hunch.